You don’t have to dig too deep to find the seedy underbelly in any portion of Hollywood history. Charlie Chaplin features prominently in the mystery of early mogul Thomas Ince’s death, spurring on the jealous rage of William Randolph Hearst and causing Ince to take a bullet meant for Chaplin, depending on which story you believe. Sharon Tate’s murder by the Manson family is seen by some as the definitive end to the sixties and the explanation for her husband Roman Polanski’s later actions. There remain questions today over whether Natalie Wood died of accidental drowning or if her husband Robert Wagner murdered her because he believed she was having an affair with Christopher Walken. Point being, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have given themselves plenty to work with in their new film history neo-noir comic The Fade Out.
Set in 1948 Hollywood, arguably the middle of classic noir’s peak, The Fade Out establishes itself as a familiar story for Hollywood history buffs, noir enthusiasts and Brubaker & Phillips vets, but that works in its favor. Consider The Fade Out the story that has always been in the back of the minds of Brubaker & Phillips, an opportunity to bring their favored influences to life, from The Black Dahlia to Barton Fink. Opening with protagonist Charlie Parish remembering the phantom air raid of Los Angeles during WWII, the story’s main theme is immediately made clear: Los Angeles is a city built on fiction, so is it any wonder its population has a taste for massive lies? But just as Brubaker and Phillips did with their seminal Criminal story The Last of the Innocent, the focus isn’t on the lies, per se, but the environment that enables and protects them.
It’s no coincidence that Brubaker and Phillips decided to make Charlie Parish not just a screenwriter, but a screenwriter with the perception of being a HUAC stooge. Like Barton Fink before him, Parish operates in a haze of confusion, constantly perplexed but not necessarily surprised by the horrors that surround him, disgusted at the steps he has to take just to survive. Parish is a man who wakes up to discover Val Sommers, a young actress he loved, has been murdered and he immediately recognizes the only viable suspect is himself. But his second thought is for how her death will impact the film he wrote that she’s starring in. Because he’s a storyteller and this is Hollywood, he can’t help but craft the narratives of her death’s impact and his mysterious role in it and even in these narratives he’s not a hero, instead he’s somehow less than a villain. Just like the phantom raids mostly left him disappointed in his fellow humans and their reaction to fear, Sommers’ death has Parish preemptively disappointed in the behavior of his colleagues and more or less instantly justified in feeling that way.
That memory of the phantom air raids is important to keep in mind not just for its thematic points, but also for the subtle indication it provides of what is to come. History may have turned the phantom air raid into a quirky anecdote, but it was the kind of lie that had sinister, subtle repercussions, ranging from the damage done by anti-aircraft guns firing 10 tons of ammunition at clouds over a major city to the arrests that almost exclusively targeted the Japanese-American community. Phillips imbues the weight of all that lying on the face of Parish, dooming him to a perpetual grimace. It isn’t the look of a stoic anti-hero, instead it’s the face of a man perennially expecting death at every turn, as though he realizes the delusional misinterpretation of facts by the city he’s in are going to have to rain down like 10 tons of ordinance sooner than later.
But Phillips doesn’t shy away from presenting the tantalizing beauty of this city of fiction, either. Aided by colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser, The Fade Out beautifully mimics a number of styles from the story’s era, from the obvious noir touches to the more bright and sensational party scenes recalling melodramatic works like Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. Phillips’ style here isn’t as overt an homage as The Last of the Innocent’s Archie reconfiguration, but it noticeably has more depth than the purposeful flatness of Criminal. There’s a cinematic weight to the panels, partially because of the depth of field Phillips gives the scenes but also because Breitweiser’s coloring gives the characters and backgrounds a movie star glow. Phillips also shows off an entrancing amount of variation, giving some flashback scenes the pillowy expressiveness of old cigarette ads while one of the key scenes in this first issue utilizes black and white pencils-only panels to contrast Parish’s depth with the interesting but ultimately shallow images Hollywood presents of itself. That scene is meant to showcase Parish’s distaste for the way Hollywood covers up its blemishes, but it also serves as a reminder that Parish is in the industry for a reason, and even he can’t resist the charm of the stories Hollywood makes up to defend its glamor.
That love carries over to Brubaker and Phillips themselves, as every panel of The Fade Out is some kind of love letter to Hollywood, warts and all. This is a comic about the power of stories even as its about the unspoken truth that stories grew out of lies in the first place– embellishments have existed since before language even did and the need for survival has forced humanity to cover up its tracks since it could walk. If there’s a drawback to the way Brubaker and Phillips have carved out their story in this first issue, it’s that a need to rely on clichés and tropes makes the story seem played out at points—there are no mysteries in this first issue that you won’t see coming. But Chinatown, that seminal neo-noir deconstruction of the Hollywood myth (tellingly made by a victim of it who would also become one of its worst predators), did the same thing and its ultimate twist landed all the better for it. Wherever Brubaker and Phillips take The Fade Out, their passion for the era their story is set in and their skill at making you both love and hate that setting just as their characters do will continue to make it stand out. After all, you can only truly love something after you’ve seen the object of your love at its worst.
The Fade Out #1 is available now from Image Comics.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends on twitter: @Nick_Hanover